Simple Steps to Cut Your Sleep Apnea Risk

Weight Loss, Alcohol Reduction, and Allergy Treatments May Help

Man snoring loudly
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Nobody wants to have sleep apnea. The good news is that there may be some things that you can do to reduce your risk of experiencing obstructive sleep apnea. In some cases, these changes may even resolve your condition. From interventions with immediate benefits to longer-term changes, learn 6 simple steps to cut your risk of sleep apnea.

1. Sleep on your sides.

Body position can have an important effect on your breathing in sleep.

Sleeping on your back will increase the likelihood of snoring and having sleep apnea. This is due, in part, to gravity shifting the tongue and soft palate into the throat. This may cause the turbulent airflow that leads to the vibration of tissues and the sound of snoring. If the upper airway is completely blocked, apnea occurs and may lead to awakenings or drops in the blood’s oxygen levels. Sometimes staying on your side can relieve this obstruction. In some cases, positional therapy may help to ensure you stay off your back.

2. Reduce your use of certain medications.

There are some medications that can increase the severity of sleep apnea due to their effects on the body’s muscles and the brainstem. Muscle relaxants and medications that cause muscle relaxation as a side effect may lead to obstructive sleep apnea. The muscles throughout the body may be inhibited, including those that line the airway.

If the airway is relaxed, it may be more likely to collapse, especially in the throat where it has less structural support. This relaxation may occur with multiple prescription medications, including benzodiazepines.

In addition, some medications affect the brainstem and cause central sleep apnea. These include painkillers, most commonly narcotic medications such as opioids.

By acting on receptors within the brainstem, the mechanism for breathing can be suppressed. As a result, there is no effort to breathe for at least 10 seconds and other potential consequences occur.

Review your medication list with your doctor to identify potential contributors and work to reduce or eliminate these, if possible.

3. Lose weight.

For many people, this is one of the most important ways to reduce the incidence of snoring and sleep apnea: lose weight. People who are overweight or obese are at a higher risk of having sleep apnea. This is likely due to multiple factors, but an important reason is that one of the places that the extra adipose (fat) tissue is deposited is at the base of the tongue and along the airway. This can crowd the throat and contribute to its collapse during sleep. Diet and exercise are effective in decreasing the severity of sleep apnea. Surgery may be indicated in individuals who are morbidly obese. It should be noted that some people of normal weight also have sleep apnea, often due to other risk factors.

4. Treat your allergies.

Congestion in your nose due to allergies may contribute to disrupted breathing in sleep. You will be more likely to breathe through your mouth, which leads not only to dry mouth but to instability in the airway. Decreased airflow through the nose may also predispose it to collapse. Imagine a trickle of air coming through the nose rather than a river: this makes the back of the throat prone to unstable collapse. Using saline sprays or Neti pot rinses as well as oral medications and nasal steroid sprays may relieve allergy symptoms. By aggressively treating your nasal congestion, you may sleep better.

5. Avoid alcohol near bedtime and stop smoking.

Much like some of the medications described above, alcohol also can act as a muscle relaxant. It can cause the muscles of the upper airway to collapse, contributing to sleep apnea. In general, it is recommended that alcohol not be consumed in the few hours before bedtime. Not only can it lead to sleep apnea, but it also may fragment sleep as it wears off and cause insomnia.

Smoking irritates the lining of the airway and this induces swelling. As the airway narrows, snoring and sleep apnea ensues. You have many reasons to quit smoking, and this is yet another. 

6. Do some tongue exercises.

Huh?! Yes, you may actually benefit from exercising your tongue. There is evidence that myofunctional therapy may improve the strength of the muscles lining the airway. With increased muscle tone, the airway may be less prone to collapse. Many of the recommended exercises involve movements of the tongue. These techniques seem to be helpful in children as well. The only downside is the amount of time that is recommended, but if you have a long commute, it may be the perfect opportunity to strengthen your throat.

If you are concerned that despite your best efforts, you are still at risk for sleep apnea, speak with a sleep specialist and pursue the evaluation and treatment you need to improve your sleep


Kryger, MH et al. "Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine." ExpertConsult, 5th edition, 2011.

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